Bloomington's Professional Theater Company

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HT Review: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Staged Reading

Review: Vonnegut’s ‘Rosewater’ hits home with Hoosiers

By Connie Shakalis
May 12, 2018

The auditorium Friday afternoon in Bloomington seemed to be full of people from my old Meridian-Kessler neighborhood in Indianapolis.

“I lived in Kurt Vonnegut’s old house,” someone said. “I lived in the house down the street,” said another. I turned around in my seat at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center to discover that, no surprise, Vonnegut’s old neighbors had flocked to Bloomington to attend a conference and festival celebrating his life and work, “Granfalloon, a Kurt Vonnegut Convergence,” hosted by Indiana University’s Arts & Humanities Council.

A feisty and endearing (a patron near me was in tears, saying “I just love Kurt Vonnegut. Have you read his work!?”) part of the festivities was Friday’s staged reading by Cardinal Stage Company of the musical adaptation of Vonnegut’s 1960s novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.”

“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” or “Pearls Before Swine,” tells of Eliot Rosewater (Garrett Thompson), a lavishly wealthy (“He’s devoted, and he’s loaded!”) son of a U.S. senator who decides to give the family money to the poor. (“I’m going to care about these people, these discarded Americans!”) The story, in classic Vonnegut style, meanders, spins off track, confuses and amazes. The world belongs in a huge insane asylum, and of course, only the craziest are sane.

Cardinal’s two-hour “staged reading” was more like a full production. Although no props appeared and the actors all used scripts, it was polished and professional, and I kept forgetting they were not acting and singing from memory.

I am not going to prevaricate: Vonnegut (even though his cousin was my good friend in grade school, and my mother read him with zeal) was always hard for me to follow. He’s brilliant and wild. He goes left then takes a sharp right. He makes us look at ourselves in a big bright mirror; we see things we would rather not.

Case in point — Howard Ashman’s (my hero, yes, I met him in New York, who wrote the lyrics and book) hilarious Cheese Nips song, delivered by the chorus and a lovely Madie Allender as Eliot’s well-bred wife. She has prepared pate, Australian lamb and Black Forest ham rolls for Eliot’s poor, backwoods folk. But they gorge on the Cheese Nips produced by the maid as they swipe the Rosewaters’ silver. I remember an elaborate chicken mousse I once labored over and served for neighbors in rural Indiana. Their jaws tightened, eyes dull, as they politely declined and went for the saltines.

Oh, Vonnegut gets us.

Allender sobs, faints, grovels on the carpet retrieving those “bright yellow Cheese Nips crumbs.” “They’re not even touching the brie!” I think Vonnegut would have loved her.

Eliot adores science fiction and volunteer firefighting (“Thank God for the crime of arson, or I’d be at home with the wife and Johnny Carson!”) Toward the play’s end, in a heart-rending scene about his ancestors, we discover the roots of his firefighter loyalty.

Shannon Starks plays Diana Moon Glampers, one of Eliot’s impoverished Hoosiers, and even as I write this, I laugh at both her and Vonnegut. They are good together. Stephanie Lochbihler is a convincing Mary Moody, another needy Hoosier and pregnant with her second set of twins. As Eliot’s worried father, Ray Hedin is authoritative and confounded. When he learns that Eliot is in Ohio, he cries, “Ohio!? He keeps sinking lower, doesn’t he!”

And of course, there’s a couple of greedy cousins finagling ways to grab the Rosewater fortune before it has all been given away. Caleb Curtis and Kaila Day are perfect here.

As the two hours drew to a frantic close, the audience stood and cheered. There was Vonnegut love in that room, old neighborhood friends or not. Vonnegut’s zany, truthful and astute look into humans had moved the crowd. As Eliot gives his discarded Americans what they had needed all along, respect, Vonnegut had given us entertainment and enlightenment.

Find out more about the Vonnegut festival at artsandhumanities.indiana.edu.

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